Exploring the need for a broader regional tourism approach 

Sea to Sky could benefit from greater marketing collaboration, say tourism officials

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JORGE ALVAREZ/COURTESY OF PEMBERTON MUSIC FESTIVAL - GROWING GAIN July's Pemberton Music Festival, which attracted up to 23,000 attendees a day, is seen from the air. Tourism officials in Pemberton and Squamish are asking whether the corridor needs to look at further collaboration on a regional marketing strategy.
  • Photo BY Jorge Alvarez/Courtesy of Pemberton Music Festival
  • GROWING GAIN July's Pemberton Music Festival, which attracted up to 23,000 attendees a day, is seen from the air. Tourism officials in Pemberton and Squamish are asking whether the corridor needs to look at further collaboration on a regional marketing strategy.

With over 2.5 million annual visitors, there's no question that Whistler is the big fish in the corridor's tourism pond.

And considering just how much of a magnet it has become for large-scale events, attracting new players to town like Ironman Canada and the TedActive conference in the past two years alone, Whistler is regularly earning record visitor numbers to the resort.

But is there room to align the Sea to Sky's tourism strategy further for the greater good of the region in the hopes of attracting the big-spending destination visitor?

"Absolutely," says Vancouver, Coast & Mountains Tourism Region CEO Kevan Ridgway. "Part of my argument (for regional collaboration) is that Whistler is competing, particularly in the summer, with the Okanagan, so if you can sell the drive route that includes the Sea to Sky, Whistler is going to benefit from that as well."

While Tourism Whistler (TW) participates in specific regional campaigns, officials from the Sea to Sky's other tourism organizations feel there's room for more strategic collaboration on a broader scale.

"Each community has its own unique values but I think you can certainly get a bigger bang for your buck if there's a coordinated effort to market the corridor," said David MacKenzie, president of Tourism Pemberton.

It's a sentiment that Lesley Weeks, executive director at Tourism Squamish, reiterated.

"Absolutely there is room for more collaboration," she wrote in an email, adding that the issue has been discussed but no formal arrangement exists to date.

"One of the biggest strengths of the Sea to Sky corridor is that each community is unique and has its own identity," she said. "We all offer slightly different experiences that complement each other nicely. A joint tourism strategy could be something we revisit in the near future."

Because Tourism Whistler (TW) receives provincial funding for tourism development based on additional hotel room tax generated from guest stays — to the tune of $1 million last year — the organization has less incentive for collaboration than their Sea to Sky counterparts. But that doesn't mean CEO and president Barrett Fisher doesn't recognize the value of a harmonized marketing strategy when it proves effective.

"I think what we always look at is if the collective is greater than the individual parts, then that's where we'd ultimately look to a regional approach," she said, stressing that the marketing funds TW has at its disposal must be used in the most effective ways possible. "So we do understand if there are activities, events, attractions and festivals that will draw a longer-haul visitor to stay longer because they're taking in the entire region, that certainly is advantageous. That really supports a more regional approach, whereas maybe on a more local approach, when we're going for a short-haul visitor who's only staying for one or two nights, then we're probably going to be marketing ourselves independently."

Fisher also highlighted the cooperative efforts that already take place on a smaller scale within the Sea to Sky. Tourism Whistler, for example, worked closely with the Village of Pemberton when officials expressed interest in bringing back the Pemberton Music Festival to ensure the dates fell on a weekend that didn't conflict with other major events in the corridor, specifically Ironman. The Squamish Valley Music Festival's website also had links to a landing page at whistler.com so guests could book accommodation or activities in the resort to go along with their festival experience. Fisher has also pushed for the Pemberton Regional Airport to open up to commercial flights, which would in turn benefit the entire region, she said.

Further to that, TW participates and receives a small amount of provincial funding each year to participate in coordinated regional tourism campaigns through Destination BC's Regional Destination Marketing Organization, Vancouver, Coast & Mountains, that are aimed at specific niche markets, effectively broadening the organization's reach.

"It might not be a segment that Tourism Whistler has the funding to participate in on our own," she said, pointing to a recent campaign aimed at motorcyclists wanting to tour the Sea to Sky, "so it makes sense for us to come in as a cooperative partner so we can collectively leverage more money that we wouldn't have been able to on our own, and then we're attracting a new audience that brings incremental visitation to the corridor."

But with Destination BC's push for better alignment and collaboration in the provincial marketing system since launching two years ago, MacKenzie feels the corridor's tourism organizations have even more room to leverage the provincial funds for marketing that are on the table.

"I think if we were collaborating a little bit better as a region, we could tap into more opportunities with more provincial dollars," he said.

Former Whistler councillor Eckhard Zeidler, who owns a vineyard two hours down the Duffey Lake Road in Lillooet, thinks those efforts could even be extended to the South Coast Range.

"Something I've felt was lacking for years and years when I was on council ... was a regional tourism vision. It seems that everybody is pretty much on their own, and Whistler, as we know, is a very well constructed little bubble and has never really expressed much interest in what goes on in the region as a whole," he said. "But if we want to extend visitor stays in this part of the world, we're going to have to get our act together in presenting a regional product. That regional product will include everything from the alpine in Whistler to the wine region two hours away."

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